Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

The narrative of control, the secrets of The United Order of Tents, & the biggest oil auction ever

Three years ago, an environmental group called NC WARN made a deal to supply solar power to a church in Greensboro, North Carolina. State regulators sued, arguing that the agreement violated the state’s ban on third-party sales of electricity. Now, NC WARN is asking the state Supreme Court to rule on the case, appealing the lower courts’ ruling against them.

Duke Energy, which has a reputation of making it difficult for North Carolinians to afford or access rooftop solar, is one of the parties in the case. A Duke spokesman recently said carrying on with it “seems like a waste of time and money.”

I reported a story this week about the rise of the solar market in what is often dubbed “Trump country” ― which usually means the South and Appalachia. State policies prohibit the growth of distributed rooftop solar in much of this region, and many lawmakers refuse to accept or adapt to a changing climate and energy industry. Major utilities like Duke Energy often back the restrictions, even as they profit from the cheapening of renewable energy by building utility-scale solar farms and facilities. These moves make it difficult for communities to make their own decisions.

Right now, this dynamic is playing out at the national level, too. A small two-year-old company out of Whitefish, Montana has contracted with the Puerto Rico Electrical Power Authority (PREPA) to spearhead restoration efforts on the island. The choice of Whitefish Energy, which is where Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is from, has puzzled members of Congress, power associations, and other energy companies. Making the case even stranger, Whitefish Energy has been arguing with the San Juan mayor on Twitter, and the rhetoric has been reminiscent of President Trump’s. Many people are calling for an investigation of the $300 million contract to understand why PREPA so quickly chose the company over many others.

While these cases are about about certain politicians and companies monopolizing energy generation, they’re more largely about an obsession with control, and the power that comes with maintaining a narrative. This plays out in nearly every realm of society. Efforts to control the narrative led to the Biloxi, Mississippi school boardbanning “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It was the reason utility and energy companies blocked climate change solutions when they knew for decades about the risks. This is why the agriculture industry spreads misinformation about the EPA’s water rules, and why the Trump administration is still trying to unravel the healthcare system and build a border wall.

Once that narrative is broken, things quickly shift. When people ― of whatever political leaning ― find out they’ve been misled, they’re rightfully frustrated. This is particularly true in the South, where many have a conservative or libertarian streak, and where communities of all demographics are accustomed to being left out of the conversation.

To use the solar example again: those in power are telling people they are not allowed to harness the power of the sun ― the free, unyielding, endless supply of energy, light, and warmth that comes with existing on planet Earth. Something as simple as installing rooftop solar panels allows them to express their discontent with that fact, to make their own decisions independent of corporations or the government. When that occurs, the needle slowly moves without overtly challenging their ideology about environmental regulation or climate change.

Of course, in many cases, citizens don’t get the choice to make those decisions. In certain low-income communities of color, people have long known the truth about regulations, pollution, or health violations and have fought their entire lives for that right. In Puerto Rico, millions of people still living without electricity or clean water have no say in which company contracts with their government to bring them power. They’ve been silenced by industry and political processes.

The silver lining may be that by realizing this, unlikely allies unite, and people are forced to come up with creatives solutions. There’s no way to stop the obsession with control. But there are many ways to recognize it and learn about it, allowing us to shift how we respond.

Stories worth your time

Cape Coral, Florida is the fastest-growing city in the U.S. But one big storm could wipe it off the map. Politico reports on the boomtown that shouldn’t exist: “It’s literally a peninsula jutting off the peninsula, the least natural, worst-planned, craziest-growing piece of an unnatural, badly planned, crazy-growing state.”

Norfolk Southern ships coal nearly 2,000 miles across Virginia to Lambert’s Point, a poor, predominantly black community in Norfolk. According to Mother Jones, coal cars release 90,000 pounds of coal dust into nearby Virginia towns and cities every year, which can lead to respiratory issues and increased rates of heart disease.

From earlier this month: A Lenny letter about The United Order of Tents, a semi-covert organization of black women working without outside help for more than 150 years. “But because it is run by and for black women — black churchwomen — it is largely unknown and in fact was deliberately kept secret for much of its existence.”

News flying under the radar

The Trump administration is auctioning off nearly 77 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas leases. It’s the largest offering ever in the U.S.

Florida Power & Light wants customers to pay for a $200 million cleanup of groundwater contamination from it Turkey Point nuclear plant. The utility is asking regulators to approve the request.

If sea levels rise 6 feet, 1.9 million U.S. homes could be flooded by 2100. In Miami, more than 24 percent of homes are at risk of flooding; Florida could lose more than 908,000 homes.